As Palo Alto officials look to reform the city's binding-arbitration provision, they are specifically looking at ways to narrow the panel's focus and requiring it to consider impacts to other city departments.
The existing law, which the City Council is considering changing or repealing, enables an arbitration panel to settle contract disputes between city management and Palo Alto's police and fire unions. The council's Policy and Services Committee discussed the provision, and possible ways to change it, on Tuesday night. Any changes would have to be approved by the city voters.
The committee on Tuesday went through a long list of possible reforms and directed City Attorney Molly Stump to return on July 12 with language that would amend the City Charter.
These changes could include requiring the arbitration panel to consider the city's financial outlook before making its decision; limiting the scope of the panel's discussion; and new criteria for choosing an arbitrator. Under the proposed changes, the arbitrators could only discuss wage and benefits issues -- not factors such as work rules and management rights. The panel could also be required to consider the impacts of its decision on the city's overall financial picture and on services in other departments.
City Manager James Keene said the city is also considering reforms that could be put in place should binding arbitration be eliminated altogether -- an alternative championed by Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilman Greg Scharff. These reforms include setting up a mediation process and setting a schedule for labor negotiations.
Committee members Larry Klein, Pat Burt and Karen Holman discussed the long list of reforms Tuesday night, but did not reach any decisions on what types of changes voters can expect to see on the ballot. Committee Chair Gail Price, the council's staunchest defender of binding arbitration, was absent.
The council has been considering changing or scrapping the binding-arbitration provision for more than a year. Opponents of the provision have criticized is as "undemocratic" because it empowers an unelected arbitrator to make decisions that could severely impact the city's budget.
Even as the city is considering changing the provision, it is preparing to enter into binding-arbitration proceedings with its firefighters' union this fall. Contract talks between the two parties have dragged on since May 2010 and remain at an impasse.